The recent shootings in CT will bring back painful memories to many people. Hundreds of people in Aurora Colorado, just down the hill from my home, will have flashbacks as they relive the horror of the night their movie theater was terrorized, and their friends and neighbors lost their lives. Farther south in my state, many families in Columbine will once again relive the horror of their own high school massacre, 13 years ago, and remember the ones they lost that day. Many others will carry the trauma of their experiences with them for the rest of their days.
Like most moms across the country, I couldn't control the tears when I heard about the room full of kindergartners who died yesterday. It's really too much for a brain to comprehend and my heart goes out to that community, who will be in the process of burying their loved ones for weeks to come. When your child dies, it's already a nightmare. When you have to arrange your child's funeral around those of 17 of her classmates, it's too awful for words.
But the moment I really lost it, the picture that struck my heart with physical pain, was the picture that showed up on the front page of my Denver Post today. I briefly saw it on the news reports yesterday but never let my eye rest on it. It's a picture of a line of children, hands on each other's shoulders, being led across the parking lot by a very calm and composed police officer. Their teachers follow behind, getting directions from another officer. A little girl in a blue shirt seems to be weeping, lost in the anguish of the situation.
This picture hit me so deeply because it took me back to a time when a gun in the community rocked my own world and put my children at risk. We had just moved to the Washington D.C. area and were settling in nicely when the sniper started shooting. For three weeks we heard constant reports about who had been shot and where they thought he might be headed next. Several locations were very close to our house.
We locked ourselves inside, ordering groceries to be delivered, paying the delivery man an extra tip for risking his life. Doctor's appointments were cancelled. There was no fort building in the back yard, which faced the woods. Every errand that was necessary found me sitting at stop lights, eyeing the perimeter, watching for any spot a sniper could be hiding.
But the hardest part of the equation was keeping my children safe. At the time, my children were 10, 9, 6 and almost 2. Three of them attended school. Not knowing how long the sniper attacks would last, they couldn't be kept home from school. Instead we had to adapt. I made them wait until the bus showed up on our street, then let them make a dash for its wide doors. Once they got home, we found indoor games to play, and tried not to let them see the TV news, with the latest report of the sniper's last kill.
In a parent-teacher conference that fall my son's teacher told me something that made me weep when I got home. She told us that she was doing all she could to keep our son safe. His class met in a trailer that required an outside walk to get to the main school. Their playground was surrounded by woods, which officials were telling us was the sniper's favorite hiding place. My son's teacher was a first year teacher and her greatest fear was that one of her kids would be hurt while under her care. She took her job very seriously. So, it turns out, every time she was required to take them on the 30 yard walk from their classroom to the main building, she'd made up a game they could play.
It was called 'Dance Club'. Once in their orderly line, their teacher told them that to get across the courtyard they were all required to bob and weave and do their best dance moves. She presented it like a fun, silly game, to get their wiggles out. In reality she was doing her best to keep them from being shot in the head.
One of the other tips we were getting from officials was 'not to be a good target'. Never stand still outdoors, especially near wooded areas. I later learned my husband often 'danced' around while waiting on his subway platform at certain stations. He never stood still, and most of the commuters around him did the same.
On the ride home from school that day I couldn't stop picturing the line of 9 year olds, my son in the middle, dodging and weaving, every time they had to make the short hike to the lunchroom and music class. The scene that most likely resembled the picture on the front of my newspaper today. And I could almost sense the way their pretty young teacher held her breath, until the last one ducked into the school's back door.
It reminded me of the pressure she was under to keep a whole classroom of children safe. I sat at home, worried about their safety under my care, thankful when they were 'safe' at school, not taking into account what it took to keep them safe at school. My son's teacher, fresh out of college and eager to make her mark in the world, had the lives and futures of 28 young children on her shoulders every single day. If something happened to one of her students, she would be living with it for the rest of her life.
Throw in a sniper who just might be setting up his gun in the woods behind her classroom and I have to wonder if she ever slept more than two hours during that three week period.
I went home from that teacher conference and wept. I wept for my babies, who deserved to live in a world where they could go outside to play and not fear being executed. I wept for a school full of professionals who took my child's safety very seriously. Teachers, many with children of their own to worry about, who go to school every day and not only worry about each child's academic level, but is ready to defend his life if necessary. And I wept with gratitude for my son's teacher, who not only made up a clever diversion that could have saved his life, but presented it to him as a game, so he never even knew he was in danger.
Way too many lives were lost yesterday. Teachers, school professionals, and way too many little children who were still counting down the days to Santa's visit.
But the professionals in that school did everything they could to protect every single life they could. I wouldn't be surprised if we find out soon that individual adults lost their lives solely because they were trying to save the lives of those around them.
Whoever turned on the intercom, so that every teacher, in every classroom, could know there was evil inside the school walls and do whatever they had to, to protect their students, saved countless more lives. The death toll, as horrific as it is, could have been higher.
This is why I will not be afraid to send my children back to school on Monday. Because I know I am sending them into a place filled with teachers and staff who would do anything they had to, to keep them safe. We can talk about making new security rules, installing metal detectors, having more safety meetings...but when it comes down to facts, I believe in the adults who surround my sons when they are in school, and know they care about more than what his GPA happens to be.
There will be another school shooting in the future. That's the reality of this world we live in. It might be soon, it might be in five years. But the odds that my child will be in that school are slim. If I really think about the odds of my child being killed in school, the statistics tell me to worry more about their car ride home from school. If I pair the odds of them being shot by a lone gunman with the fact that they are immersed in a protective environment when they enter those school hallways, I can send them to school with peace in my heart.
Our family has personally felt the terror of a bad guy's gun in our community. Every story of another shooting will touch us deeply. But what I can do today, to keep myself from sitting in another pile of tears, is to pray for the grieving families, maybe send a little more money to the Red Cross, and say a second prayer of thanks, for the teachers who saved lives yesterday and the teachers who would save my sons' lives in an instant, if they were called to action.